Museums are no strangers to difficult topics; many house exhibits that address social topics in order to spark conversation and consideration for these difficult issues. The question is: how do we approach these subjects in museums?
Some of the overarching problems in discussing social issues include paranoia, misinformation, and irrational behavior. In order to combat these themes, museums have to look at the role that scientists and the media play in discussing these topics. In her article “A Broken Trust: Lessons from the Vaccine-Autism Wars”, author Liza Gross explains that parents are starting to see the scientist as just one more voice in a sea of opinions. Because of this, misinformation starts to creep in from the media and from misinformed or under informed parents. Some of our goals as museum professionals should be to place the modern issue in a historic context to allow for interpretation.
The role of collections in understanding societal issues may also play a part in discussing tough subjects. Eric Feingold, a history curator at the Ohio Historical Society, explains, “Objects provide a tangible link to history…topics such as racism, homophobia, etc. may be somewhat abstract…people may not think they exist or are an actual societal problem”. Feingold also says that because museums are held in the public trust, it is their duty to present history by being faithful to actual events and people. Exhibits on issues such as immunization are tricky, but they are also important to presenting the context of historical decisions and the key to creating an informed community.